Wednesday, April 29, 2009

OFFSIDE

by Tobias
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Yet another brilliant jewel to emerge from Iran's new wave, and ironically, hardly anyone in that country will see it because it's not allowed to be screened there. The reasons will become obvious to you within a few minutes of viewing OFFSIDE

I found the structure of this film to be refreshingly organic; it feels like a political documentary while it lasts, never like conventional narrative fiction. OFFSIDE sheds light on the absurdity of the suffocating social bubble many women are stuck in in many countries stubbornly ruled by theocratic ideology - and I love how it emphasizes how simple communication can be a driving force to help undo silly national gender barriers. As always, the use of simple wit and allegory are director Jafar Panahi's effective weapons of choice. He's truly one of the great artistic forces at work in political world cinema currently, I eagerly anticipate his next. I also love how his energetic and sometimes devastating human drama's are always perfectly balanced with a great deal of pragmatic hope.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

THE DARJEELING LIMITED

by Tobias
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Wes Anderson's meticulous craft has only grown increasingly brilliant and indulgent with each film. The ability it takes to transport visual trademarks of his kind out of a technical comfort zone and apply them in a far off foreign land is one of greatness; takes some serious cinema skillz. His notoriously idiosyncratic style also frequently makes him an easy target for critics who feel he dishes out the same thing over and over - but I feel many of them overlook the loads of personal depth and human longing on full display in all of his work. I think those who equate his quirk with superficial kitsch are blindly mistaken.

I like just about everything about THE DARJEELING LIMITED. The fable quality of these three brothers' journey taps into a lot of real feelings and attitudes I and my siblings have. Although it's probably my least favorite of Anderson's stuff so far (and I also love HOTEL CHEVALIER, the prologue to this, a lot more) I still believe DARJEELING is one of the great feature length American films of 2007. For me, Wes Anderson belongs to a league of screen masters who always deliver a type of cinema that can only be associated with their distinct art look and feel (Luis Bunuel, David Lynch). He's just one of the few American directors that I feel is doing anything remotely interesting and inventive with comedy movies at this point in time, even when he's doing one about the same themes he's already tirelessly explored.

RESCUE DAWN

by Tobias

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I think this is Werner Herzog's best film since LESSONS OF DARKNESS (1992).

Let me get this off my chest, I LOVE Werner Herzog's documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, also concerning this story of Dieter Dengler's time spent in a POW camp during Vietnam - so going into this film I was worried it could never really excite me since I assumed I knew literally everything that was going to happen to him. I had already witnessed the charismatic and eccentric real-life Dengler reenacting his horrific experiences with the boyish enthusiasm only he could do it with. I figured, at best, I would be mildly entertained with the new project, but it just rubbed me as obnoxiously commercial and strange for Herzog to take it on again. I was WAY off in my assumptions, and I totally underestimated Herzog, the mad poet of cinema. It truly says something great about a filmmaker when their work can have this kind of visceral and psychological effect on a viewer who already knows of the events that transpired in the camp. I'm still baffled that it was such a nail biter for me since I already knew the outcome.

Christian Bale, Jeremy Davies, and Steve Zahn all deserve the highest praise for their performances in this. The ensemble acting is quite amazing. I think Bale's work here is the second best lead performance of 2007 after Day Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

RESCUE DAWN hypnotically transcends its brilliant source documentary and leaves a profound feeling of optimism in me. It's yet another cinematic triumph depicting obsessive men existentially engulfed in jungle that can be added to Herzog's intimidating filmography.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

by Tobias

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A powerful tale of unbelievable greed that bursts off the screen with frightening imagery. Paul Thomas Anderson has created a larger than life myth and a triumph of filmmaking technique. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a near master work in the same league as CITIZEN KANE, and THE GODFATHER PART II in my eyes. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis in this is like viewing some dangerous wild animal violently rampage, within the first 10 minutes when his character toils in a mine and absolutely no dialogue is spoken, we get a notion of how profoundly disturbed and brutal his character is. Daniel Planview embodies all of the cold and bleak aspects of the future effects of industrial expansion. L.I.E.'s Paul Dano also gives a demanding performance as the twin brothers Eli and Paul Sunday. The craft of THERE WILL BE BLOOD is so bravura aesthetically that it once again points out that Paul Thomas Anderson (the director of MAGNOLIA, my favorite film of 1999) is obviously one of America's most creative and maverick auteurs. Those expecting the director's trademark undertones of Christian humanism exhibited in all of his prior films (SYDNEY, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE) will be quite startled by this film's lack of redemption and how faithful it is to Upton Sinclair's harsh view of humanity and capitalism. One of the most iconic and amazing sequences ever committed to celluloid in recent years is this moment where an oil tower erupts into an almost biblical scale inferno - cinematographer Robert Elswit captures it with a much needed assured majesty. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood composes one of the more ominous and sweeping film scores in recent memory, It echoes Ligeti's most haunting stuff in the best possible cinematic way. I know this may be an overly ambitious statement to make by a film enthusiast, but I don't believe there has been this dense or poetic a character study of a destructive man since Scorsese's RAGING BULL. Atleast in American cinema there hasn't been. From start to horrifying finish, THERE WILL BE BLOOOD haunts me for quite some time after each viewing.

THE MIST

by Tobias
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Good American horror films can be categorized into three basic time periods for me: before and after Vietnam and before and after Sept.11. 2001 is a year that transmogrified the United States' concept of horror forever. Scare flicks ranging from great (THE HOST) to good (this movie) to okay (CLOVERFIELD) to not so good (STAY ALIVE), display fully how genre cinema can tap into the international community's collective anxieties. I don't think there is a much more expressive canvas for climates of fear and paranoia than film. And this movie, for all its flaws, could have only been made at this somewhat uneasy time. In a way, this movie is Darabont's (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) playfully vicious response to accusations that he's only capable of delivering Capra-corn with outlandishly positive endings. THE MIST is a creepy and campy good ol' fashioned B-horror romp. But at it's core, and the Stephen King story from which it's adapted, is a very pessimistic view of humanity. Where you could describe Darabont's THE MAJESTIC (2001) as Americana, you can call the doomsday obssessed THE MIST anti-Americana. Although King wrote the short in 1980, the themes and ideas are just as universal today. If not more. The story revolves around a familiar apocalyptic scenario that we have all seen in many other classic horror flicks; there's some bizarre event that's causing people to act-the-fool, said people become huddled in a confined space together, etc. Carpenter's THE THING (1982) and George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) immediately come to mind. Like those two storytellers, King/Darabont use the set-up as a microcosm of contemporary society, and how fear of the unknown can bring the worst out of people in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event. Be it; Cuban Missile crisis, Vietnam, Columbine, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, whatever. After a bizarre electrical storm, Dave Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son head to their local grocery store to gather supplies. Not long after they arrive, an eerie emergency siren blares through the town and sounds like a 50's era nuclear bomb warning; the sound you might hear in the event of a tornado or terrorist attack. A large fog bank then descends onto the town and engulfs it in a supernatural and metaphorical "mist". A frightened senior citizen soon comes limping out of it exclaiming that "there's something in the mist!" (in true B-horror spirit). Shortly after this point the movie heads into Rod Serling territory when the true nature of the mist is revealed. Lovercratfian territory even. Small footnote: the Japanese designers of the first SILENT HILL videogame (one of my favourites) have admitted that this King story was a core influence for the game's disturbing setting and ominous dread. Come to think of it, I wish Frank Darabont had been the filmmaker chosen to adapt that game to the screen instead of Christoph Gans, the stylist I feel butchered it. After a variety of handsome creatures, well suited for a 1950's drive-in movie, are found lurking in the fog, the true horror of the film commences when the human characters start to turn on each other when communications with the outside world collapse. This set-up is really effective and eerie. Most of Darabont's execution is good as well. Obviously never great, but a reliably entertaining adaptation of light-weight schlock. Something of a valentine to classic American horror. There is one REALLY bad CG pass involving a tentacle in the first act. If you've seen the movie you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's pretty distracting. Totally took me out of the mood I was in for a second. (It's not so bad in the director's black and white cut he couldn't get released in thaters). After that Scifi channel quality tentacle, the rest of THE MIST has some dazzling FX done with a shockingly low-budget. The creatures are neat mixture of CG, animatronics, and gruesome make-up worthy of a Guillermo del Toro movie. In a old-Hollywood classicist way, the acting is pretty amusing too. Thomas Jane and Andre Braugher really stand out. Above all Marcia Gay Harden brings the best and craziest performance to the film. She's hilarious. Also, Mark Isham's score is used appropriately only to punctuate apocalyptic moments and I never thought it was used as a manipulative crutch. I salute Darabont for getting this story to screen and for wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve while managing to create a work that doesn't exist as purely a tired homage.

Viewing Journal: 4/25/2009

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
(2007 dir. David Silverman) 3rd Viewing: December 20 2009
Rating:****
4 out of 5 stars

I feel like I was raised by this family, so naturally I'm crazy about this movie. One of my only complaints, and it's a silly one, is that it almost feels too short and compact. Hell, I'd pay to see a 4 hour Simpsons movie. Wouldn't you? While it lasts, the movie is truly epic and high-larious. It was one of my more enjoyable moviegoing experiences of '07. To me, it never feels like a drawn out TV episode (like STEWIE GRIFFIN: THE UNTOLD STORY). Other than the length, I'm enamored with almost everything about it. Love the writing. Almost a perfect TV-to-film adaptation in mein eyes. Yay for the original writers! The animation is pretty low tech but nicely polished. And I got enough of a dose of Comic Book Store Guy, so I'm set. I can't believe the likeable but forgettable SURF'S UP got nominated for Best Animated Feature by the AMPAS over this and AQUA TEEN. It's a damn outrage I say! While THE SIMPSONS MOVIE may be no RATATOUILLE, PERSEPLOIS or PAPRIKA, it was still certainly a wee bit better than SURF'S UP. For the majority of Americans, fans & non-fans alike, these characters are engraved into our collective conscience, so it felt really good and cathartic even for me to finally see them represented on the glorious cinema screen. I feel as if I know all of them personally in real-life, even though they're silly larger-than-life cartoons.

Viewing Journal: 4/24/2009

THE HOST
(2006 dir. Bong Joon-ho) 2nd Viewing: April 24 2009
Rating:*****
5 out of 5 stars

A dynamic & thrilling monster movie for the post-Sars virus post-9/11 international community. The narrative, once set into motion, has an intoxicating fable quality about it. I always find it to be one of the more absorbing pieces of hybrid cinema from this decade. Writer/director Bong Joon-ho juggles the diverse tones of extreme horror, humor, and dramatic humanism shockingly well. He's is in my opinion one of the most talented and accessible of Korean filmmakers to come around in a long while, and after BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE (2000), MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) and this, it's safe to say he's a visionary we should all keep close eyes on.

Friday, April 24, 2009

RATATOUILLE

by Tobias
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I can be militantly critical of childrens movies sometimes, even above most other screen genres (with the possible exception of the comedy), but when they have great artisans behind the wheel, they can be some of my favourites. Ex. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, TOY STORY, and FANTASIA. Brad Bird is consistently a solid storyteller. I personally favor his 1999 masterpiece THE IRON GIANT a bit more than this, but I feel like this is just as great and adventurous in a different way. It has a deep respect for the culinary arts as a legitimate art medium and acknowledges the notion in a phenomenally entertaining way, with its tiny protagonist's passion for cooking. RATATOUILLE is a breath of fresh air this year. An escape from the loads of animated filler and sub-mediocrity that are crammed into many cinplexes as of late (BRATZ, FLY ME TO THE MOON, OPEN SEASON, etc., I can barely tell some of this crap apart.) John Lasseter and the Pixar heads have a knack for staffing creative writers and great directors. For me, they have yet to release a flimsy project. Also, it's worth mentioning that I suffer from the classic American male low-brow syndrome as far as humor goes sometimes and it's hard to make me genuinely laugh without being crude or vulgar, and this film passes with flying colors while staying family friendly. I laugh through the whole damn movie. Enough to annoy others sitting around me anyway. It really takes talent to achieve that level of comic payoff on the page and then have it translate well to the screen. And you can tell how tightly written RATATOUILLE is. All of the characters are wonderful. And you gotta love the way Bird relates his images to the narrative momentum of this story. It's already one of Pixar's more unique films. Brad Bird and his collaborators are now officially animation greats for me. With this, THE INCREDIBLES, his bulk of THE SIMPSONS series, and of course THE IRON GIANT, Bird has joined the animation ranks of Hayao Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, Nick Park, John Lasseter and good ol' Walt Disney (the man, not purely the studio of the same name). Also, It takes tremendous creative abilities to not make rodents seem appalling, and the filmmakers really pull that off somehow.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

by Tobias
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Australian über-stylist Andrew Dominik crafted one of my personal favorites of 2007 with this pensive outlook on the notorious outlaw and his killer. It's a gorgeous and meditative tone poem. With a literary narrative reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON and visual splendor poetically in tune with loads of 70's arthouse pics, especially DAYS OF HEAVEN and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is thankfully out of step with just about every contemporary American film. Really isn't a conventional western in any sense. I'd say it's more of a period drama that happens to be set during that segment of history. Unlike many biopics concerning these pop icons, this movie really does not glorify or demonize Jesse or Robert Ford. It merely depicts them as deeply flawed human beings with some serious personal struggles. The entire ensemble is brilliantly cast in their roles. Most of them are honestly the best acting money can buy. I feel like Casey Affleck's Bob Ford almost outshines the always charismatic Brad Pitt, here playing Mr. James. Roger Deakins' lush photography lends a great ethereal dream like quality to the film. It really doesn't look or feel like many of the studio films out there...Unless of course they're lensed by Deakins. I think his work on this film is the technical best of 2007, just as his lensing on O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU was the best of 2000. North America's ongoing fascination with celebrity and martyrdom eerily haunt this near masterpiece. It's a somberly moving and stunning film to behold in its true aspect ratio.

ZODIAC

by Tobias
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An all-American existential psychological thriller of truly epic proportions. Like Scorsese's GOODFELLAS (1990), ZODIAC spans more than two decades and features a humongous ensemble cast of at least 20 speaking parts. Shooting on a brand new state-of-the-art HDV (that even fooled me, really thought it was 35mm), Fincher's visual style seems to be evolving into something quite more refined then what has been exhibited in much of his prior work. Narratively and thematically however, he continues to mix his brand of dark humor with drama and artistically explore many of the same recurring ideas featured in his cinema. The whole ensemble is awesome too. Serious top notch acting. Ruffalo and Downey Jr. really stick out. As always. Fincher has crafted an extremely thoughtful, patient and technically proficient work of new millennium film art with this pic. It captures the bleak atmosphere of a distinct time and a place in U.S. history but also feels strangely alien and modern. It sometimes recalls the more seminal procedural films of the 70's, like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THE CONVERSATION, but gets so much darker and so much more removed, almost to the point where it even starts to feel like science fiction. I don't know whether to describe it as deconstructive or revisionist, but I do know it will most likely be a confusing bore to audiences more accustomed to a traditional compact narrative. But I think many will embrace Fincher's pitch black execution of the events. Like Robert Graysmith, He's obsessively fixated with the details of the true-life case and devotes so much screen time to them that he almost crafts something resembling...anti-film? Anyway, most of the dramatic hooks you'd expect to find in a serial killer pic like this are completely absent. Which is refreshing. It's a nice alternative to the TV show CSI and its cinematic spawn. Polar opposite of that type of narrative in almost every way. Through ZODIAC's entire whopping running time, I'm glued to the screen, like a moth drawn to a lamp. It's one of the most fascinating things I've seen in all of the 00s.

So yeah, David Fincher's best film.

THE BAND'S VISIT

by Tobias
> play trailer

All hail the arrival of writer/director Eran Kolirin! A bright new filmmaking talent in the independent wry comedy mold of Jim Jarmusch. Though influenced by many cinema fountainheads, I don't feel like there is really another Israeli film quite like the tone or craft of this one out there. Its simple story of ordinary lives and ethnic relations in the small town of Beit Hatikva bridges a strange gap between great sadness and humorous deadpan. It manages to address the tensions between Arabs and Israelis in an oddly restrained manner that's tender and unique. It's a very welcome change in attitude from the current hateful, angry and continuosly heated climate that oozes from the media. At the center of Kolirin's refreshing debut is a wounded humanist soul that wants only the strength to carry on living another day. One of my favorite foreign films released in the U.S. in 2008.

WALL-E

by Tobias
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Just as A BUG'S LIFE invites comparisons to Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI, Pixar's latest gem WALL*E is a fancy sci-fi riff on Chaplin's silent Little Tramp films, particularly MODERN TIMES and CITY LIGHTS. You could also mention that the small trash compactor himself is influenced by many cinema archetypes ranging from R2D2 to E.T., but to dismiss WALL*E as merely a cute homage is a cowardly evasion. Like anything else the Pixar animators dish out, this film has more spark and originality in its frames than most animated films do in a 10 year period. For a children's movie distributed by the Disney corporation, WALL*E speaks volumes about the negative aspects of consumer culture. But behind its bleak message about the future of garbage, also lies a hopeful and romantic portrait of love and kindness. Everything about the mechanical protagonist (with oddly human peepers) and his love interest EVE, paints a romantic picture of the importance of our species collective inheritance. He's learned everything about us from studying our crap. And oddly enough, in return, he glorifies mankind's greatest redeeming virtues: hard work, responsibility, creation, fidelity, and the nobility of selflessness. The amount of bizarre and imaginative sub-cultures writer/director Andrew Stanton can conjure up never ceases to amaze me. My favourite animated film of 2008.

WALKER

by Tobias
Being a huge fan of Alex Cox and Ed Harris equally, I had been highly anticipating Criterion's DVD release of this 80's obscurity for some time, and now that I've seen it, I can safely say that it's definitely one colossally uncompromising vision, even if all of it's elements don't quite gel together at all times. I feel like a lot of the surrealist tendencies of director Alex Cox on this film would be comfortably at home in a Jodorworsky film (or one of Cox's other films: REPO MAN, STRAIGHT TO HELL) but are often awkwardly out of place with all the other historical elements of the period. But I guess that's part of what gives the film some of its vitality, so who am I to bitch? Also, this has got to be one of the more bizarre acting parts Ed Harris has ever done. Ranks well alongside other great kabuki performances of the screen - like Nicholson's Jack Torrance in THE SHINING (1980). I've got to tip my hat to Alex Cox for crafting one of the stranger more angry political allegories that I've seen. Though it's set in the past, it functions nicely as a not so subtle critique of America's imperialistic foreign policies. The vicious punk spirit of this filmmaker was truly one of the last great satirical voices of 1980's independent cinema.

SUNSHINE

by Tobias
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Alex Garland's shamelessly thrilling script has a tendency to conform to a few predictable genre conventions here and there (especially in the final act) but I think that hiccup is part of the movie's oldschool charm. SUNSHINE'S energy feels new while its concept familiar. It's essentially all of the elements of prior disaster pics spit polished to stylish near perfection. Danny Boyle remains a unique and entertaining pop filmmaker with unique vision. The influence of European dance culture and specifically electronic music on his craft gets overlooked a lot when people discuss his work. He has always cut his modernistic images to the driving bass of electronica in a similar fashion to the way Scorsese cuts his images to classic rock/jazz. But Boyle almost takes it to an absurd degree here, that can be both overbearing and exhilarating. Visually, it's tweaked out pulp sci-fi with some Kubrickian sensibilities. SUNSHINE is what you can get when you turn over the reigns of traditional genre fair to entertaining cinematic talent -- a disaster film that could've easily been bloated and soap-operatic (ARMAGEDDON) but is thankfully ambiguous, spiritual, visually arresting, and, most importantly, deeply focused on its core themes of responsibility and self sacrifice.

Viewing Journal: 4/23/2009


"Director-detective" Errol Morris' newest kinetic assault. This time with a focus on the arcane nature of images in our digital age. Through what his trademark craft --combinations of dazzling cinematic reenactments, "Interrotron" first-person confessionals, atypical theatrical scoring (Danny Elfman replacing Philip Glass here) and haunting interludes of archival footage--- Morris creates an expressionistic collage out of the media-circus that surrounded the Abu Ghraib scandal. The film provides nothing if not a buffet of food for thought through all its informative angles, but mostly through compelling and intimate interviews with Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman about how those infamous photographs came to be. Also how they affected their lives. Morris's dynamic observation of this case is an alarming dissection of how some unfortunate and misguided grunts (a few a little on the mean-spirited side, some emotionally weak and others just flat out dumb ass ignorant kids) can and will sadly become scapegoats for their higher-ups who encourage and give orders for despicable acts. Several elements made up the way those infamous stills were perceived by the media: their content obviously, but also the way they were arranged, and how some of the frames were even manipulated digitally. I think Morris inventively illustrates how a lot more than meets the eye went down that month in 2003. The most shocking and eye-opening part of this whole film for me is the sequence that highlights which of the photographed behavior was considered "legal" or "illegal" by the CIA. Really solidifies my understanding of how potentially subjective all images really are in this day and age. STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE does not ask you to forgive these individuals - but it does, along with Sabrina Harman's voice-over renditions of letters she wrote home, put a depressingly human face on the whole mess. Already one of the better documentaries of the new millennium that I've seen and I think Morris's personal best since THE FOG OF WAR (2003).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Viewing Journal: 4/23/2009

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
(1991 dir. Gus Van Sant) 3rd Viewing: April 23 2009
Rating:*****
5 out of 5 stars


Remains, to my eyes, one of the more ambiguous treatments of alienation and disaffected youth on film. The inventive narrative slips between a modernized Henry IV and a poignant story of homeless gay street hustlers as frequently as its narcoleptic protagonist slips in and out of consciousness. I've always wondered if the Shakespeare segments in this influenced Baz Luhrmann on some level to do his ultra hip 1996 update of ROMEO AND JULIET. River Phoenix really brought a human warmth to his emotionally wounded character here that I think very few actors could have. It's the best male performances of 1991 in my opinion. Remains my favourite instalment of Van Sant's Portland Oregon trilogy that began with MALA NOCHE (1986) and DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989), and still his greatest and most personal film.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Viewing Journal: 4/11/2009

MOON
(2009 dir. Duncan Jones) Date Seen: April 11 2009
Rating:****1/2
4.5 out of 5 stars
It's not too often I see modern genre science fiction with the ability to actually make me give a damn about their characters, much less think on any philosophical level about the themes they attempt to explore. Duncan Jones's debut feature MOON is certainly one of the exciting exceptions this year. It wields silence, an emotionally complex performance by Sam Rockwell, inventive B-film production values, and the ambient musical stylings of Clint Mansell to form something of an instant genre classic. Puts the gimmick juggling antics of most mainstream studio sci-fi to shame. And though not quite on the same level as some of the genre heavyweights it's clearly been influenced by (
SOLARIS & 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY), those who found interest in overtly cerebral sci-fi fare like SILENT RUNNING, BLADE RUNNER, and PRIMER should definitely seek it out when it's released theatrically!